An alternative to international aid

The global proliferation of community foundations is no accident. Community philanthropy is reclaiming traditions of sharing that have been undermined by individualism and materialism, and is simultaneously an act of resistance against neocolonial interference in the guise of “aid.” There is growing awareness among communities in the global South that dependence on international aid binds them to a system that favors Northern interests; increasingly, they consider “poverty” a construct created by those same interests and perpetuated through the aid system.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, international aid constitutes an estimated 36 percent of GDP, and there is literally no aspect of the economy that is independent of Israeli control and international influence. The Palestinian Authority (PA), a pseudo-government residual from the Oslo era, is the biggest beneficiary, with an estimated one-third of the Palestinian population dependent on the public payroll. As a result, the PA answers to international/Israeli orders, and has almost no accountability to local communities. Sadly, international NGOs fail to live up to their civil society mandate. Instead, they compete with local NGOs for funding, staff and beneficiaries. Add the approximately one billion US dollars per year of funding that goes through the United Nations, over which local people have very little influence, and the picture is complete: A massive, misguided, self-perpetuating “humanitarian” system that not only constrains local agency, but also undermines traditional systems for interdependence and self-reliance.

While critiques of international aid are becoming mainstream, there is still little awareness about community foundations as a viable alternative, even in the discourse about funding for human rights. In responding to local challenges and opportunities, community foundations and other community philanthropic organizations offer communities a dignified and creative way to organize their resources towards collective self-reliance for generations to come. 

Palestine’s community foundation, Dalia Association, grew out of two challenges: continued Israeli occupation, dispossession, and colonization; and dependence on politically-restricted international aid. Dalia’s founders perceived that both these forces deny Palestinians the right to control their own development agenda. Today, Dalia’s work is organized around a concept that has evolved through our years of work: self-determination in development. The concept of self-determination in development frames self-reliance in human rights terms and links the right to development with the Palestinian national cause. 

In fact, when I assembled the founders back in 2007, I didn’t fully grasp how aid colluded with Israeli occupation, dispossession and colonization. I was focused solely on money. “If only Palestinians had their own money,” I thought, “…the wasteful, irrelevant and unsustainable activities posited as ‘post conflict development’ would stop.” But my group of co-founders quickly disabused me of my naïve and simplistic approach. Self-determination is not about having a big endowment. It’s about responsibly and intentionally utilizing the resources we have, mobilizing other resources by modeling credible, inspiring practice, and working transparently, democratically and accountably to pursue our own priorities over the long haul.

In the last seven years, Dalia’s work has grown and flourished with experimentation in three related pillars. The first pillar of Dalia’s work is an innovative, unrestricted small grants process we call “community-controlled grantmaking.” Dalia mobilizes resources for grassroots community groups in villages and refugee camps, but we don’t make grants like a donor. Instead, we facilitate democratic and transparent community decision-making by the local community. They decide who gets grants and how much each grant consists of. A committee comprised of community members is formed to monitor grantees to ensure they work with integrity and for the good of the community at large, not for any factional, family or personal interest. Grantees mobilize local resources to expand their projects, and Dalia provides constant and on-gong support in the form of coaching on planning, budgeting, procurement, marketing, etc. In this way, small amounts of money can transform a whole community: local civil society is strengthened in its commitment and ability to respond to local priorities, and the community practices the right and responsibility to hold civil society groups accountable and support them with local resources.

The second pillar of Dalia’s work is philanthropy development. We recognize the need to expand the culture of philanthropy beyond religiously-motivated giving and charity to include support for the sustainability of local institutions. We also recognize the need to build systems to make local, diaspora and private sector philanthropy safer, cheaper and more credible. The challenges are enormous: lack of trust in local institutions, underdeveloped legal and regulatory frameworks, and the chilling effect of the war on terrorism. But as a community foundation whose vision is to achieve independence over generations, Dalia is positioned to address these challenges no matter how long it takes. We are currently promoting the idea of “funds” in the name of companies, families, villages or causes. Unlike “donor advised funds” that are common in US foundations, these funds are a true partnership between contributors and the community. Contributors decide what to give (cash, materials, or services, in any combination) and they can engage as much or as little as they want with communities, but the communities are the ones to decide how to use their development resources. The challenge is to keep decision-making local, while encouraging contributors to engage beyond writing a check.

The third pillar—advocacy to reform international aid—has changed over time. Dalia has become more selective in its targets. Rather than attempting to influence major aid actors for whom Palestinian interests are clearly not a priority, like USAID, Dalia encourages Palestinians to refuse that type of fundingand instead engage with (and thereby influence)  international actors that practice true partnership and are motivated by human rights commitments.

In 2013, Dalia Association was recognized for its unique strategy when it won the Arcus Global Social Justice Prize, in part for this inspiring 10-minute film.

I still find that I have to explain Dalia’s work to people who are skeptical. Many of them can barely imagine a vibrant, independent and accountable civil society in Palestine, and the concept of an organization dedicated to helping other NGOs achieve sustainability and community accountability is even stranger. To those people, I like to explain Dalia work with a much simpler metaphor, the potluck. At a potluck, everyone brings what they can, however modest, but everyone feasts. Everyone is a giver; everyone is a receiver.

Just imagine if every one of the over 10 million Palestinians in the world, and other supporters of Palestinian rights, contributed whatever resources they can - money, ideas, contacts, materials, faith, culture, services - for the good of locally-controlled development in Palestine! A man in Chicago could donate computers to a school in Jerusalem. A woman in Gaza could translate a press release for an equal rights demonstration in Haifa. A company in Jenin could donate grant money for a women’s committee in a village near Hebron. A solidarity group in Spain could send occupational therapists to teach Gazans. A youth group in Jaffa could perform the poem of a refugee in Lebanon.

Dalia Association is a matchmaker, a motivator, a convener, and a hands-on supporter to ensure that resources are used effectively, with integrity and reported transparently in order to inspire further giving. Our vision for Palestinian development is one that re-weaves relationships among the disparate parts of the Palestinian community and offers every single person and group the opportunity to give.